I remember the call clearly.
I had recently taken a new position at a legal practice and I was only a couple of weeks into the role when I got a ring from Mayor Linda Jeffrey’s Chief of Staff, Hasneet Punia.
“Would you be interested in working for the Office of the Mayor, as our comms guy?” he said, in his signature hurried pace.
I had run or served on multiple campaigns across Canada, for different parties and different levels of government, but I had never been a political staffer before. I kind of liked just being an electioneer.
But the city had recently gone through the explosive Hurontario-Main Light Rail Transit (HMLRT) debate and vote – and I was livid that six of our councillors turned down the opportunity for a fully funded LRT for no legitimate reason.
“Sure, I would love to,” I said with very little hesitation, “let me talk to the partner of the law firm I am at right now. I pretty much just started here, so if he’s okay with me leaving, then I am in.”
It is easy to criticize City Hall from the outside looking in, but here was a real opportunity to be part of the change I wanted to see in the city in which I was born, raised and lived.
The partner told me to take the role, he agreed, saying “it’s a good opportunity to give back to Brampton”.
I called Hasneet back letting him know I was good to go, and I started at the mayor’s office shortly thereafter.
Before I began, though, I had a few phone calls with those in and around city politics. They all said the same thing — “it’s dysfunctional down there”. One individual whom I deeply respected told me, “try to extend an olive branch with the older guard, who knows, they may be willing to work with you guys on files”. I agreed.
Looking back at that conversation, we were both naive.
City Hall was dysfunctional, and it wasn’t the Mayor’s fault.
I was fresh into my first day at the office when Hasneet sent out a broadcast email introducing me to councillors and the senior administration at the City. Almost immediately a councillor replied all to the email attacking me personally.
That councillor? Elaine Moore — shadow Mayor for the last four years as the de facto leader of a block of six (and sometimes seven) councillors (Michael Palleschi, Doug Whillans, Grant Gibson, Jeff Bowman, John Sprovieri and sometimes Gael Miles).
They were, in my opinion, the epicentre of the perceived dysfunction at City Hall. All of them, except one, also happened to be either long-serving councillors or the children of previous long-serving councillors (I frequently refer to this collective as the “old guard” or the “obstructionists”).
Councillor Moore scanned my social media the moment she learned I was hired, took a screenshot of a post I made as a private citizen of Brampton a year earlier. It was about the Hurontario-Main LRT (HMLRT) vote and how disappointed I was about the decision that evening at the Rose Theatre.
Moore took the screenshot and broadcast it to the other councillors and the senior administration, and went at me personally.
I thought Councillor Moore’s behaviour was strange and sad, but mostly toxic.
Mayor Jeffrey called me into her office and apologized to me, “I feel bad for you”, she said sympathetically, “but I know you can handle it”.
She was right.
I replied back to Councillor Moore suggesting I was, and am, entitled to my opinions made as a private citizen and I stick by them, and I also reiterated that I took my role in the mayor’s office seriously and would love to meet any of the councillors — including Elaine Moore — willing to grab a coffee to chat and discuss our visions for Brampton.
Needless to say, Councillor Moore did not take me up on my offer — in fact the only old guard that did was Councillor Gael Miles, and it was a pleasant conversation even if we did not agree on everything.
I spent a year and a half with the mayor. My role eventually changed to Senior Advisor to the Mayor, covering communications and special projects related to the university file and innovation agenda.
I left in the spring/summer of 2018 for provincial Progressive Conservative politics and then the World Sikh Organization. In my time in her office, Linda Jeffrey always carried herself as a calm, measured, and pragmatic leader.
Was she perfect? No, of course not. No politician or person is. I always thought she could have challenged the seven obstructionist councillors more aggressively. But, she was honest and sincere for her love of Brampton and championing an urban, progressive and big city vision.
Our office was one that was willing to take a stand for Muslim students caught in the middle of the alt-right’s bigotry during the Peel District School Board’s prayer time debate when everyone else was quiet.
It was an office that fixed our city’s financial books and opened the doors wide open to independent investigation after years of rot.
This office succeeded, where all previous councils had failed, by bringing Ryerson University to our city and investing $150 million in an innovation centre and new central library that will anchor our place on the Toronto-Brampton-Waterloo Innovation Corridor.
Yes — it was also an office that could not push through the HMLRT, that had its motion for a permanent Independent Auditor General (as recommended by the ombudsman) shot down, or that could not stop the old guard from bailing out a private hockey club to the tune of $1.5 million tax dollars, or could not stop them from buying an overpriced golf club.
Why? Because our council was the worst. Specifically the seven regressive and obstructionist councillors led by Councillor Moore, who roadblocked the mayor’s big city agenda every step of the way. The fact that the mayor got done as much as she did over the last four years with such a fractured council should be lauded.
Thankfully four of these old guard councillors will be gone come October 22, 2018, by a combination of retirements and a foolish fluoride induced mayoral run. Three more are fighting in what have become competitive political campaigns and will hopefully lose.
Finally, for the first time in a long time, Brampton will have a younger, more dynamic and diverse council. A council that sees Brampton as a big city (the third largest in the GTA and ninth largest in Canada), and not as a small, sleepy town of a bygone era.
And, trust me, that will make all the difference.